The myth has long been promoted that Britain refused to send troops to the Vietnam war and played little role in it. The declassified British government files on the war are therefore little short of a revelation, showing that Britain gave important private backing to the US at every stage of military escalation, and also revealing its own covert and military role. The reality is that Britain was complicit in the aggression against Vietnam and shares some responsibility for the massive human suffering that resulted.
Support for US intervention
The major British interest in backing the US was not only to support its major ally, but also the fear that the ‘fall’ of South Vietnam ‘would be disastrous to British interests and investments in South East Asia and seriously damaging to the prospects of the Free World containing the Communist threat’.
After the US intervened in November 1961 – when the Kennedy administration sent helicopters, light aircraft, intelligence equipment and additional advisers for the South Vietnamese army, soon after which the US air force began combat missions – Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas Home wrote that ‘the administration can count on our general support in the measures they are taking’. British planners clearly understood that this intervention was a complete violation of the 1954 Geneva Accords which put limits on the number of US military forces acceptable in Vietnam. Britain had a responsibility to uphold the accords as a co-chair of the Geneva Agreements, with the Soviet Union. But the British connived with the US by promising not to raise the issue. ‘As co-chairman, Her Majesty’s Government are prepared to turn a blind eye to American activities’, the Foreign Office secretly stated. Douglas Home suggested to Secretary of State Dean Rusk ‘to avoid any publicity for what is being done’.
Britain backed the military not the diplomatic option. ‘Surely we should aim to divert and not to focus international attention on our actions in Vietnam while we get on with the task of defeating the Viet Cong’, Douglas Home wrote at the time. (The use of ‘we’ here is interesting, showing the extent to which British ministers regarded the war as their struggle also). In May 1962 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sent a personal letter to South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem saying that ‘we have viewed with admiration the way in which your government and people have resisted’ North Vietnamese attempts to ‘overthrow the freely established regime in South Vietnam’, adding ‘we wish you every success in your struggle’.
British support for war is easily explained – throughout the first half of the 1960s, London thought the US could win. The effect on ordinary Vietnamese was an irrelevance. There are simply no concerns expressed in any of the hundreds of British planning files for the lives of the people on the receiving end of Anglo-American policy. British officials were perfectly aware of what was happening to ordinary Vietnamese. In December 1962, for example, Britain’s Ambassador in Saigon, Harry Hohler, noted the South Vietnamese forces’ ‘indiscriminate air activity’ and killing of innocent villagers. The only concern expressed was that this would have an adverse ‘psychological impact’ and is ‘grist to the mill of local communist propaganda’.
January 1962 is the first mention in the British files that I have seen of a ‘chemical substance used for clearing strips of jungle vegetation’. In March the following year, Foreign Office official Fred Warner wrote that ‘there is no doubt the Americans have used toxic chemicals’ and that ‘we believe that these chemicals are a legitimate weapon’ to destroy the insurgents’ cover. He noted that the Soviet government had requested that an investigation be mounted by the International Control Commission (ICC) of the Geneva Accords, but Warner said this was simply a matter for the ICC, not Britain. Again, British officials protected the US, with horrific consequences.
Britain’s support for Diem
Britain provided considerable direct support to the Diem regime and US military in support of the war. The British Advisory Administrative Mission (BRIAM) had begun work in Saigon in September 1961 with a small team of experts in ‘counter-subversion’, intelligence and ‘information’, intending to complement US advisers. BRIAM’s head, Robert Thompson, quickly became one of Diem’s leading foreign advisers.
The British government’s claim that BRIAM had a purely civilian and not military role, maintained in various parliamentary answers and debates, was a complete lie. The memo proposing the establishment of BRIAM stated that training was to be provided ‘over the whole counter-insurgency field’. Around 300 Vietnamese soldiers were trained in ‘counter-insurgency’ at British camps in Malaya in 1962/3 alone. By 1963 the Diem regime was described as ‘most appreciative of the type of training and of the assistance’ provided by Britain.
Britain’s major contribution to the war, however, was Thompson’s counter-insurgency programmes, based on (extremely brutal) measures in the British counter-insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s. US military officials, it was reported, were much impressed by Thompson and ‘were most anxious’ that the ‘valuable experience we had gained in Malaya [be] put to the best possible use in South Vietnam’. In late 1961, Thompson produced a draft plan that became known as the Delta Plan whose aim, according to the Foreign Office, was ‘to dominate, control and win over the population, particularly in the rural areas, beginning in the delta’ region. The proposal involved establishing curfews and prohibited areas to control movement on all roads and waterways to ‘hamper the Communist courier system’, along with ‘limited food control’ in some areas. ‘If the system works successfully’, the Ambassador noted, ‘this provides the main opportunity for killing terrorists’. Thompson’s Delta Plan was also the basis for the US ‘strategic hamlets’ programme, soon to be devised by the US State Department.
Britain’s covert role
The British government has never admitted that British forces fought in Vietnam, yet the files confirm that they did, even though several remain censored. In August 1962, the Military Attache in Saigon, Colonel Lee, wrote to the War Office in London attaching a report by someone whose name is censored but who is described as an advisor to the Malayan government, then still a British colony. This advisor proposed that an SAS team be sent to Vietnam. Lee said that was unacceptable owing to Britain’s position as Co-Chair of the Geneva Agreement but then wrote:
‘However, this recommendation might be possible to implement if the personnel are detached and given temporary civilian status, or are attached to the American Special Forces in such a manner that their British military identity is lost in the US Unit. However the Americans are crying out for expert assistance in this field and are extremely enthusiastic that [one inch of text censored] should join them. He really is an expert, full of enthusiasm, drive and initiative in dealing with these primitive peoples and I hope that he will be given full support and assistance in this task’.
‘These primitive peoples’ is a reference to the Montagnards in the highlands of the central provinces of Vietnam. Lee continues:
‘It is â€¦clear that there is enormous scope for assistance of a practical nature on the lines of that already being undertaken by the Americans. Thus it is strongly recommended that such British contribution [sic] as may be feasible be grafted onto the American effort in the field, particularly in view of their shortage of certain types of personnel. The ideal solution might be to contribute a number of teams to operate in a particular area fully integrated into the overall American and Vietnamese plan. The civil side could be composed of carefully selected Europeans and Malayans with suitable experience, and the military element could be drawn from the SAS regiment which operated for many years amongst the Aborigines in Malaya. Suitable steps could doubtless be taken to give them temporary civilian status. Although we should have to rely on the Americans to a great degree for logistic support, it might still be possible to provide a positive contribution in this field such as specialised equipment. A less satisfactory solution might be to integrate certain specialists into existing or projected American Special Forces Teams, although the main disadvantage here, particularly on the Aborigine side would lie in the fact that many of the experienced Malayan personnel would not speak English and would have to rely on the British element as interpreters when dealing with the Americans.’
This team was sent, and was known as the ‘Noone mission’ under Richard Noone (the figure whose name is censored in these files) and which acted under cover of BRIAM. The covert operation began in summer 1962 and was still in operation until at least late 1963.
Other covert aid provided by Britain included secret British air flights from Hong Kong to deliver arms, especially napalm and five-hundred-pound bombs. Intelligence support included forwarding reports to the Americans from MI6 station heads in Hanoi while the British monitoring station in Hong Kong provided the US with intelligence until 1975, in an operation linked to the US National Security Agency, whose intercepts of North Vietnamese military traffic were used by the US military command to target bombing strikes over North Vietnam.
Military escalation, British backing
A May 1965 Foreign Office brief states that Britain’s ‘direct involvement in Vietnam is insignificant’ but ‘that our interests as a non-communist power would be impaired if the United States government were defeated in the field, or defaulted on its commitments’. US prestige was therefore in danger and defeat ‘would damage America’s standing all over the world’. Similarly, ‘American abandonment of South Vietnam would cause both friend and foe throughout the world to wonder whether the US might, in future be induced to abandon other allies when the going got tough’.
The period 1963-6 was marked above all by massive escalation in US aggression. The British files show the degree of secret support Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave President Johnson, at every stage of escalation, often kept private given major British public opposition to the war – a good example, as currently with Iraq, of how the public threat is dealt with by private understandings among elites on both sides of the Atlantic.
In February 1965, the US took the war into a devastating new phase by beginning the bombing of North Vietnam in its ‘Rolling Thunder’ campaign. Britain had already promised to give ‘unequivocable [sic] support to any action which the US government might take which was measured and related strictly to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong activity’. Two days after the attacks began, Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart told the Washington embassy of the ‘military necessity of the action’ and informed Wilson that ‘I was particularly anxious not to say anything in public that might appear critical of the US government’.
A Foreign Office brief in March 1965 stated that ‘although from time to time we have expressed cautionary views in response to notifications of US plans for attacks against the North, we have at no stage opposed them. Our comments have been mostly on the timing or public presentation of the attacksâ€¦HMGâ€¦ have at no stage opposed the policy being followed by the US but rather by suggesting minor changes in timing or presentation from time to time, have acquiesced in it’.
When the US first used its own aircraft in South Vietnam in March 1965, this was also welcomed by the British ambassador, who said that it had ‘beneficial effects’ both on the Vietnamese government and the ‘morale of the American pilots’. On 8 March the US landed 3,500 marines in South Vietnam which the Foreign Office said in private was ‘in contravention of Article 16 and 17 of the 1954 [Geneva] agreement, but we have not yet received any protests on the subject’ – therefore, best keep quiet. Then, in June 1965, the US announced that US ground forces would now be going into combat on a routine basis. One Foreign Office official noted that ‘I feel sure we should try to help the US administration, who have now been landed in some difficulty in handling the president’s announcement, by implying that the commitment of ground troops is mostly a matter of degree’.
The British provision of arms to the US for use in Vietnam was done in the knowledge that it breached the Geneva Agreements. In September 1965 the Foreign Office agreed to export 300 bombs intended for the US Air Force ‘for use in Vietnam’, saying that ‘there must be no publicity’ and that ‘delivery should be in the UK’. The previous month the Foreign Secretary had agreed to provide the US with 200 armoured personnel carriers for use in Vietnam ‘providing that delivery took place in Europe’ and that there was ‘no unavoidable publicity’.
The way out and British interests
In contrast to the first half of the 1960s, from 1965 onwards British planners were concluding that the war could not be won militarily. A draft Foreign Office report of June 1968 concluded that ‘it is very much in our interests that the United States should as soon as possible find a means of escape from her present involvement’ in Vietnam. The reason was that the war was imposing ‘strains on the world monetary system’ which was due to a lack of confidence in the reserve currencies. One reason for this was the US balance of payments deficit caused by spending on the war. A US withdrawal ‘would have a stimulating confidence effect on the dollar and in [sic] world trade, which should both directly benefit the UK balance of payments’. Since the existing monetary system was dependent largely on the willingness of the European countries to hold an increasing number of dollars in their reserves, a danger was that this would not continue indefinitely. This ‘could result in a major monetary crisis which would cause us major damage whatever its outcome’.
But British ministers continued to publicly support the war, the only variation being concerns about whether bombing North Vietnam was ‘wise’ or likely to ‘succeed’. The US invasion of Cambodia in April 1970 was also firmly supported by British officials. Then British Ambassador John Moreton wrote that ‘leaving aside the political risks, I am now completely convinced of the soundness of the military arguments in favour of the decision’.
Edward Heath, remembered as the Prime Minister who took Britain into the European Community in 1973, should also be remembered for his extreme apologias for US violence in Vietnam. Heath wrote to Nixon in July 1970 that ‘I do not need to assure you that you have our fullest support in your search for peace in the area. We deeply admire the firmness and persistence which you have shown’. This was in reply to Nixon’s letter on US troop withdrawals from Cambodia, which the US had invaded three months previously.
In April 1972, Nixon inflicted massive bombing on Hanoi and Haiphong while other cities were targeted and systematically destroyed. The British government’s news department was instructed to say that the Nixon had all long ‘reserve[d] the right’ to bomb North Vietnam. On 17 April Foreign Secretary Douglas-Home defended the US bombing in Parliament which prompted US Secretary of State William Rodgers to phone him ‘to thank him very much’ and to say ‘it was very much appreciated in Washington’. Rodgers informed Douglas Home ‘how pleased the President was’.
Britain backed the US to the last while, throughout, there was not even the pretence of concern for the victims.